Thu | May 23, 2019

Editorial | Welcome embrace by Integrity Commission

Published:Tuesday | May 14, 2019 | 12:24 AM

The most positive takeaway from the Integrity Commission’s press conference yesterday was its commitment to request an unmuzzling of its ability to disclose, or otherwise speak about, investigations it undertakes until the probes are complete and reports laid in Parliament. But while we welcome this embrace of an action for which this newspaper has been campaigning, we are surprised – assuming the tone and substance of Justice Seymour Panton’s remarks that reflect the real basis of the decision – that it appears to be founded in a sense of peeve rather than a deep, philosophical commitment to transparency.

Nonetheless, having made this move in favour of greater openness in the functioning of the commission, the members must go further in their demands for changes to the Integrity Act other than that which they have publicly signed on to, including having the right to make reports public if Parliament fails to act within a reasonable time.

This commission, which encompasses the separate agencies that used to police the assets and liabilities filings of parliamentarians and public servants, as well as the contractor general, has been in operation for more than a year. But in a country where the perception of corruption is high and trust in the bureaucracy low, no one knows if the Integrity Commission, despite several major allegations of corruption or deviation from operational rules by public officials, has opened investigations into any of them.

Section 52 (3) of the Integrity Act, the outcome of the collusion between the political parties when the law was being debated, requires that all investigations be kept confidential and no report made on them “until the tabling of a report in Parliament”.

This newspaper has greater empathy with Justice Panton’s feeling, which he suggests to be in common with the other four members of the commission, of being “trapped by the legislation”. “It doesn’t allow us to say anything”.

WHY BLAME THE MEDIA?

Our concern, though, is how – by apparently conflating the legislature’s failings and the commission’s own recent mishandling of the last report of former contractor, Dirk Harrison, for which it had oversight – the former Court of Appeal judge attempted to project the negative consequences of that misadventure on to a press that was doing its job of highlighting the issues.

“The freedom of the press is such that the media can say any and everything, including falsehoods,” Justice Panton said. “We can’t say anything.”

If this mischaracterisation of events is what is required to galvanise the Integrity Commission into an action that is profoundly logical, the press, in the interest of transparency and the advancement of good governance, can, with humility, absorb the indignity of being labelled liars.

In that regard, as we proposed previously, we expect that the commission, in its coming annual report, and before then, will call for the removal, or amendment, of Section 53(3) to end the blanket curtailment of speaking on investigations, including even saying if they are being done.

At the same time, the commission should also back our proposal that after it sends any report to Parliament, including those on special investigations, and it is not tabled within 60 days, then the commission is obligated to release it to the public, by whatever means it chooses, including uploading to a website.

We hope, too, that the commissioners reconsider their view of an absence of conflict, perceived, real or potential, of the auditor general, being, automatically, by law, among their members.

The office of the auditor general is highly respected for its work. The integrity of the office’s current incumbent, Pamela Monroe Ellis, remains unquestioned.

There, however, is, and will be, overlap in the work/investigations done by the auditor general and the Integrity Commission.

As the contretemps between the commissioners and Dirk Harrison over his report revealed, there is potential for differences of views between both agencies and of these spilling into the public domain.

In this regard, the auditor general will appear to be riding two horses at the same time and possibly being in control of neither. Conflict, at times, is not actual behaviours or action but perception thereof. Such perceptions are better avoided.